Five From The Top & One For The Ages: The Five Best Novels Of 2013 + 1…

It’s the time of year for ‘Best Of’ lists, and I have to admit to loving them. You can hear our Best of 2013 podcast now, but the following books deserve more detailed praise, so here it is.

The following are excerpts of reviews of my five favourite Scottish novels of the year, plus one of a novel from one of my all time favourite writers, and I would recommend each and every one wholeheartedly.

They are not in any order, although as I have already picked Alice Thompson’s Burnt Island as my Scottish book of the year for The Bottle Imp, that seems the ideal place to start…

‘Burnt Island  is unashamedly literary and clever, without being pretentious. The quote from Plato’s Republic that precedes the story is from one of many texts and tales that were brought to mind as I read, but it is perhaps the most important one as the book is all about searching for the self and for ideas, as well as the problem with the existence of others. At one point the central protagonist, Max Long, is literally left looking at shadows as he is trapped in a cave, but by the time this happens you will be overwhelmed with what has unfolded, and what it all means, and that will just be one more reference to tick off against all the others.’

You can read the full review here…

‘Call of the Undertow is about someone looking to escape their past, and finding that no matter where you are geographically, that is harder to do than it may seem. It is also one of the most enchanting and magical novels of the year. The bleak and eerie landscape of Caithness is wonderfully evoked as a place where secrets and lies are shared between the land and the sea. Trothan is a child shaped by his surroundings, and he makes the perfect person to map his domain. The results are as much a rural psychogeography as being concerned with badlands, bedrock and beaches, and his work makes a community face its own past, just as Maggie must face hers. Trothan is the catalyst for change; an otherworldly creature out to make mischief, or perhaps to make amends.’

You can read the full review here… 

‘There are a couple of books and writers that An Exquisite Sense Of What Is Beautiful reminds me of; the urban novels of James Leslie Mitchell (better known to most as Lewis Grassic Gibbon) and the unexpected darkness in the work of Robin Jenkins. The mixture of the personal and political can be found more recently in James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still, but the novel that I kept thinking of as I read was Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, in style if not in story.  Like that novel An Exquisite Sense Of What Is Beautiful is artistic, literary and thoroughly involving.’

You can read the full review here…

‘Even for those well versed in Japanese culture, the world in which the novel is set will be quite alien, and it is initially difficult to focus and adjust to what unfolds, but this is not to do with language, character or setting. In fact some of the language is wonderfully familiar. At one point a woman comments ‘What’s for you will not go by you’, a Scottish Zen aphorism if ever there was one. What is unusual is the pace of the novel. Night Boat is a book not to be rushed, and I believe it would be impossible to do so and fully engage with the challenges it presents. It is a novel of contemplation, not only for Hakuin and his followers, but also for the reader.’
You can read the full review here…
‘Straight White Male is Niven’s best book to date as it has a humanity which is often surprising and very moving as Kennedy tries to make amends of some sort. Unlike Steven Stelfox, Kennedy is aware that his actions have caused others pain and cares about this even as he acts in a similar manner once more, the sign of a true addict. Whereas Jesus (yes, that one), in Niven’s equally entertaining The Second Coming knows he is ultimately immortal, Kennedy Marr just behaves as if he is while being far too bright to not realise the truth of the matter. He has committed the crimes, and is just waiting for his punishment.’
You can read the full review here…

An incredibly strong selection, made even stronger considering those books which missed out, such as Doug Johnstone’s Gone Again, Karen Campbell’s This Is Where I Am, James Robertson’s The Professor of Truth, Amy  Sackville’s Orkney and fantastic short story collections by Rodge Glass and John Burnside

I’ve said it many times before, but here’s further proof that Scottish writing is thriving, often against the odds, a state of affairs which must have pleased the late Iain Banks. Before his sad passing this year he published The Quarry, his final novel, and although it was not his best (and his best was among the very best) it still deserves mention as it was a fitting reminder of the intelligence, humour and anger which drove all his writing. Here’s what I thought about the book, and the man…

‘Iain Banks was introduced to readers in 1984 with The Wasp Factory, a book which also had some decidedly sniffy reviews, but for all the accompanying shock and eugh it also heralded the appearance of one of Scotland’s most interesting and innovative writers. It was angry and uncompromising, and there is the same anger and refusal to bow to anyone in evidence in The Quarry. If you haven’t read any Iain Banks, I would suggest you start at The Wasp Factory, and then you have such a wonderful journey ahead of you. At the end of The Quarry life goes on, and while it will never be quite the same again, everyone is enriched by what went before. That’s why this book is important to me, and why I’m glad I’ve finally read it.’

You can read the full review here… and also my obituary of Banks here…

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